Translation: “Looking Forward to When Anti-Corruption Has Some Culture”

I came across this short piece by Wang Gengxing in Southern Weekend today; I think it’s quite worthy of discussion. (All the links were added by me for the purposes of providing extra context; none of them are in the original piece).

Recently officials have been falling one after another: “Watch brother” Yang Dacai, Guangzhou former PSB chief He Jing, Yibin deputy mayor Chen Guangli…we can see that the government is resolute in opposing corruption and that the anti-corruption system is gradually improving. But even the most perfect system will not easily show results without corresponding cultural support. Taichung (Taiwan) mayor Hu Zhiqiang once dressed up as a beardless “modern-day Zhong Kui” and beheaded four kinds of green “corruption demons” with a group of children to plant the seed of opposing corruption in their hearts. Hong Kong’s ICAC uses many approaches to plant the seed of “clean governance” in the people’s hearts: they used the cartoon “Zhi Duo Duo” to communicate with children, set up an interactive website to communicate with young people, sent “clean government ambassadors” to colleges, held anti-corruption activities…Central Commission for Discipline Inspection secretary He Guoqiang recently emphasized that we must give prominence to the special characteristics of clean government culture, “in improving writing styles from top to bottom, in innovating new measures from top to bottom, ceaselessly raising the level of anti-corruption/pro-clean government education and propaganda work.” Why can’t you and I also put forward plans and make anti-corruption even more cultured?

Is cultural involvement really necessary to fostering cleaner government? Clearly not everyone thinks so. One commenter on the article above wrote:

Without civic consciousness, without consciousness of civil liberties, without an effective system of checks and balances, all we can do is count on idle talk, what’s the point?

Another wrote:

Culture’s influence is imperceptible [but present], however in today’s society, this road is destined to be long and winding [i.e., eliminating corruption via cultural changes is going to be a very slow and inefficient process]. Returning to the main topic; greed comes from human nature; unless we wait for the arrival of true socialism when there is no more inequality, we’re just treating the symptoms but ignoring the root cause.

Another commenter hit on my own personal reaction to the piece:

The system is useless, it’s all Monday-morning quarterbacking ((The original Chinese here is one of my all time favorite expressions, ‘an after-the-fact Zhuge Liang’)). Mostly it relies on net users, mistresses, and Gan’s daughters.

In other words, the system is often reactive and does nothing to stop corrupt officials who don’t draw attention to themselves. Indeed, one of the examples Wang cites in the original piece, “Watch brother” Yang Dacai, was only brought to justice after internet users uncovered his corruption and started raising a ruckus.

Returning to the original point though, despite the fun-sounding stunts in Taiwan and Hong Kong, I don’t think that corruption can really be regulated through education and culture, and especially not through the PRC government’s propaganda machine, which hasn’t proven to be particularly effective with this sort of thing. (For example, the government has been both promoting and legislating gender equality for years in the hopes that it can stamp out the traditional girl-bad-boy-good mentality; the failed results of that campaign so far are pretty evident in the country’s growing gender gap). As one commenter pointed out, greed seems to be a part of human nature, and it’s not likely to be overcome by a cultural campaign even if Zhongnanhai plasters the walls of the Forbidden City with red banners about fighting corruption.

On the other hand, though, the Chinese school system certainly could be doing more to promote transparency and honesty. At present, many students in Chinese schools are learning (among other things) how to get away with cheating; cheating and plagiarism are (in some schools) basically considered part of the game. I can only assume that attitude does contribute to the idea that it’s OK to cheat in other ways in one’s professional life, including — if one opts to go in that direction — one’s life as a public official.

Moreover, I suspect the larger issue facing China’s anti-corruption drive is the perception that Party membership and officialdom is generally motivated by personal interests rather than ideology or any genuine interest in serving others. For example, a cursory search for “Why Should I Join the Party?” turned up this question on Baidu Knows (What is the best reason why I should join the Communist Party?”). The top answer is exactly what you would expect, but here are snippets from some of the other answers users submitted:

…The best reason to join the Party is that after you commit a crime you’ll become famous. As soon as someone says official so-and-so did it. Otherwise, you won’t be able to become famous…

Of course, joining the Party has advantages for you…

Because you’re a Chinese person and you have to live in China…

Because these days many companies give priority to Party members when hiring.

Entering the Party is not just a reflection of improving your political identity, it is also creating a political foundation for your personal struggles. In a sense this means it will improve your personal value; for example when filling out a resume and putting down that you’re a Party member, the results will be very different [than if you weren’t; in other words, Party members will get jobs and meet other goals more easily.]

My personal opinion…when Party members make mistakes, they take away your Party membership first; if you’re not a member you’re just directly criminally prosecuted. Also I hear that if you’re a Party member and you’re arrested they can’t put handcuffs on you, haha.

There’s plenty more where this came from; the point is that clearly a lot of people feel that joining the Party ((which, granted, isn’t quite the same as public service although it’s generally the first step towards that)) these days is just a way to get ahead in your career or give yourself a little bit of padding in case you ever get caught breaking the law.

That’s a cultural problem of sorts, so could a cultural push really help stem the tide of China’s corruption? And if it could, would the Chinese government actually be able to effectively pull off such a campaign? I have my doubts, but I’m curious to hear what others think.

(Please keep in mind before you comment that we have recently changed the commenting rules. I highly suggest reading that link before commenting if you’re not already aware of the changes.)

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15 thoughts on “Translation: “Looking Forward to When Anti-Corruption Has Some Culture””

  1. Is their anyone belonging on the Hurun list who has actually amassed their billions thru skills, entrepreneurship etc alone? Don’t think so, and they are staying away from big 18th handover gig this year in droves. So much uncertainty that HK luxury good sales (esp watches) have dropped 30%. Just don’t know which govt official they should be currying favour with.

    Okay, okay, recurrent cultural/civic awareness programs come and go with clock like regularity. Not surprising, given that a single party controls the media, courts,govt department, etc. Corruption is not an aberrant rmb driven behavior: It is the heart and lynch pin of the system.

    Look at Bo Xilai’s cv, now discovered to be monumentally corrupt from the git go. And the more secretive the institution, the greater the possibilities for amassing wealth through red envelope, mafia, guanzi type methods. And this point is damning made by Ross Garnaut in his long article on the PLA in Foreign Policy quoted in the latest by Eric on Sinostand.

    There are approximately 1,200 pieces of legislation designed to curb official and other forms of corruption in China today. A significant number of government and party organisations have flatly refused to detail travel and entertainment expenses in their recent annual reports. (I’m on dial up today, so scroll thru China google news for links to most of the above.) It points to the absolute weakness of Beijing to enforce its clean govt diktats.

    However, most commenters place the blame squarely on the present system of Party controlled govt, media etc.

    But, how about the possibility that the very nature of Chinese culture/language/mentalite (ways of thinking and organising business behaviour) – irrespective of the system of government – provides a comfortable and central role for red envelop, guanzi driven methods of acquiring wealth and govt influence.

    It could be in the cultural DNA, pure and simple?
    (Here one can think of the attempt by Taiwanese Chinese business interests to buy the govt in the Solomon Islands a few years ago. That however went a bit pear shaped and the locals torched their businesses.)

    Sort of clarifying this point, so welcome any feedback, and hope I have not transgressed any of Custer’s onerous new commenting rules.

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  2. @C Custer

    Mind giving some examples of students learning to “succeed” at all cost (via cheating, etc)? Maybe some sense of prevalence of that sort of thing? The usual stereotype is rote memorization to pass tests so cheating on that is just bad.

    Maybe you’re referring to stuff like inflated transcripts when applying to foreign schools. I’d attribute that more to bad agents. But if the students are following suit, that’s bad too.

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  3. @King Tubby

    I like how you bring up “corrupt practices” in the chinese culture. I still got to say the government absolutely needs to be above that. Any hint of bribery (red envelope going into pocket) destroys the credibility of the official wearing the pocket and destroys the credibility of the government that lets him (leaves him room to) get away with it. I was also going to say that red envelopes needs to go to government coffers but that has it’s own problems so I’m not going to say it.
    It’s well known that the enforcement of rules and regulations is lacking in China so it’s interesting that there are 1200 laws dealing with corruption while a number of government agencies just ignore huge chunks of them. Here’s a question that I hope you can answer. I know there was resistance to budget transparency but is that resistance dying down, is the party/government doing more to force transparency on the government agencies and officials? Because if transparency can be resisted successfully, that’s not a problem with culture, that’s just a big fat fail for the government.

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  4. @ cephaloless:

    Sure. For example, in 2008 the China Youth Daily did a poll of 900 students, 80% of whom admitted (anonymously, of course) to cheating on exams. (Source: AP). You may find this New York Times article relevant as well. Here’s a the key section (it’s a fair ways into the piece):

    In fact many educators say the culture of cheating takes root in high school, where the competition for slots in the country’s best colleges is unrelenting and high marks on standardized tests are the most important criterion for admission. Ghost-written essays and test questions can be bought. So, too, can a “hired gun” test taker who will assume the student’s identity for the grueling two-day college entrance exam.

    Then there are the gadgets — wristwatches and pens embedded with tiny cameras — that transmit signals to collaborators on the outside who then relay back the correct answers. Even if such products are illegal, students spent $150 million last year on Internet essays and high-tech subterfuge, a fivefold increase over 2007, according to a Wuhan University study, which identified 800 Web sites offering such illicit services.

    This Asia Times piece may also be of some interest, although it’s more focused on adult test takers.

    As far as I know there is no massive polling data on this or anything (I haven’t seen anything with a larger sample size than the CYD poll), but almost anyone who has worked in education in China can tell you that it is a problem and there’s plenty of anecdotal writing about it if you’re interested in specific cases.

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  5. Every ESL teacher can dine out for years on their war stories about cheating in exams.

    I wrong-footed 200 students (8 X 25) by deliberately leaving an exam paper in my dust bin while talking to a likable but lazy student. Returning from lunch, it had disappeared. Next day I distributed the Plan B exam and smirked.

    Plagiarisation in essays. Don’t even ask.

    @cephalosless. I probably mixed apples and oranges in my post.

    I’m more interested in the possibility I raised….the DNA point …corruption as a centerpiece in any business transaction viewed as a means of reducing entrepreneurial risk and maximizing financial returns.

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  6. Thanks for the links Custer. I think I’ve seen the NYT article before but the other ones are very enlightening and entertaining. I thought you might have been talking about teachers teaching students to cheat but I figured out I misread that part.

    @King Tubby
    I didn’t see no fruit 🙂 (well, there was “pear”)
    Now, business I actually see no problem with grey areas like red envelopes and expensive liquor. Still, I’m pretty sure the boss would have a problem with a VP who negotiated a deal for $10k per copy of MS windows, even if the VP hands the kickback straight to the boss. The salesman’s boss would promote him for his superb handling of that VP. That is unless the salesman’s bribe totals $10k per copy sold. Then we come right back to the bosses setting all sorts of employee rules and regulations to prevent malicious or idiotic actions. But between these extremes, I totally see that’s how business work.
    I’m no business man but what little I’ve heard of, even outside of chinese culture, isn’t wining and dinning and free samples (though no red envelopes of cash) how business gets done?

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  7. @Cephaloless – Dining on expenses with business contacts maybe – but there’s always some business rationale behind it. Straight-up bribes? No.

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  8. @ cephaloless: I’m sure that happens from time to time but I’m not sure there’s any evidence of it being a huge problem. My guess is that sometimes it is parents and sometimes it’s just a natural response to the immense pressure that comes from having a whole family riding on you, having a few exams deciding your future, and knowing that you can probably get away with cheating, that some of your classmates will be doing it anyway, and that even if you get caught the repercussions are likely to be minor.

    I remember back in my dark days as an “English teacher” that Chinese college students were often shocked that one instance of plagiarism — even if it’s just one or two sentences — could be enough to get you expelled from many American colleges. That is very much not the case in China.

    @ KT: I’m not sure I really believe in cultural DNA, but it would be interesting to look at how prevalent cheating was in schools during the ROC period and in imperial times. (I know there are some amazing examples of people cheating on the imperial civil service exams, but I’m not sure if there’s any data on how prevalent or widespread that was).

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  9. In order for people not to commit “crime”, there does need to be a cultural/societal awareness that “crime” is wrong. However, there also needs to be a predictable and commensurate penalty for those who commit “crime”, in order to serve as a deterrent for themselves and others. The CCP can drone on until they’re blue in the face that corruption is wrong, and teach little kids that corruption is wrong. But unless and until those who learn poorly are punished accordingly, those lessons will not get very far. As one of the commenters noted, it’s all lip service unless the CCP backs it up, and they appear unwilling and/or unable to do so.

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  10. @ Custer. Re: my point about cultural DNA. Let me clarify.

    Whether we are talking about cheating in exams, or utilising a range of extra-legal corrupt business practices, we are talking about a common, culturally shared mentality: methods of optimising ones exam results in a competitive environment or optimising ones financial returns by reducing risk (ie bribes and other forms of under-the-table business dealings).

    You are taking a very compartmentalized view of life. I’m focusing on socially acceptable/shared methods of shaping and organizing experience, whether in college or in the business world. That,s called a mentalite/mentality/world view. (Probably a good google definition to draw out my point.)

    It starts early in life. Recall the six year old who wanted to become a govt official because they were able to buy all that stuff.

    This is the point you must address. Your reference to imperial exams really supports my point, albeit in a China which was organised around a very different set of coordinates.

    Cultural DNA is trans-historical.

    And people shy away from my point for reasons of political correctness or Western liberal yearnings for China.

    You could also extend my claim to Shanghai material girls.

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  11. @ Gil

    This naive non-businessman rounds all sorts of things up to bribery-ish actions. Also I was describing a scenario without regard to the government’s view of things (again, what do I know but that was what I was thinking). About “straight-up bribes” and business rational, I have some trouble with that. Shouldn’t at least one of the sides of the under-the-table transaction be acting out of business interest?

    BTW, we don’t have to continue this particular tangent. I just threw it out there to tease out some thoughts. Although bribery with respect to culture might be something interesting as well as corruption/cheating vs acceptable actions to accomplish goal.

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  12. @ King Tubby

    I’d like to say culture evolves. (I’m not going to defend that, just saying where my question is coming from). Are you talking about aspects of world view or value system that is relatively constant?

    @ SKC

    Off the top of my head (and my previous post), probably there’s a lot of “corrupt” practices that’s not considered wrong in the social context. That and people like to ignore laws and do things with a human touch. But cheating (like plagiarism), I don’t know, I have trouble swallowing study groups and homework. What do you teachers think, desperation?

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  13. To cephaloless,
    that’s true, there may not be a black and white line demarcating what is “wrong” and what isn’t, when it comes to corruption in all its different guises. On the other hand, it may be a bit of a chicken/egg problem, whereby the lack of laws codifying right and wrong (or lax enforcement thereof) leaves people with inadequate guidance to inform their own moral compasses.

    Or perhaps one can simply say it is human nature to look for shortcuts and the easy way, and if the powers-that-be don’t enforce limits, then people will do what people tend to do.

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